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Baker tries to clear air over NIU's bold ideas

Published: Sunday, April 27, 2014 11:25 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, April 27, 2014 11:55 p.m. CDT

DeKALB – When Northern Illinois President Doug Baker on Sunday told almost 100 DeKalb residents he was surprised by their adverse reaction to the university’s bold ideas, they laughed.

“The fact that you’re laughing means I don’t think you understand what we’ve been doing, so I’d like to talk to you about that,” Baker said. “I’m serious about that. I’m frustrated by the level of communication that has gone on about this. And a lot of that is our fault.”

Almost 100 people attended a town hall style meeting Sunday night at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeKalb to voice concerns and ask questions about the changes proposed at NIU’s campus and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

The Sunday event was put on by members of Preserve our Neighborhoods, a group of citizens who live in the neighborhoods around the NIU campus. DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh guided the night, which included presentations from Baker, NIU’s Vice President of Public Safety and Community Relations Bill Nicklas, DeKalb Mayor John Rey and DeKalb County Board member and chair of DeKalb’s landmark commission Sally DeFauw.

Baker explained the “Bold Ideas Thesis” that has spurred an uproar among some DeKalb residents was the result of five days of work done by a design team, stressing the fluidity of the ideas.

The university also held two “Bold Futures” workshops to think of ways to change campus layout and transportation plans in hopes of reversing declining enrollment, attracting and retaining more students, and creating a greater connection between the university and the city.

Dave Carrier, who lives of Fox Hollow Court near the NIU campus, questioned the map in the 10-page thesis that called for housing on the campus’ North 40 field.

“When I think of the density there I don’t think you’ll find very many faculty or alumni wanting to live that close together,” Carrier said. “You’re basically making, potentially, a slum area if it’s students.”

Baker responded by saying the idea of housing at that location was thrown in by the design team last minute and not a very likely possibility considering the campus has more land, but 5,000 less students than it did a decade ago.

“This was an hour’s worth of drawing by some guys at the end of the week,” Baker said.

Baker contended the main focus for university officials would be the core of campus rather than the surrounding neighborhoods. Imminent plans include making Lucinda Avenue the spine of campus by demolishing Douglas Hall this May and testing an electric tram service on campus this summer.

When Toni Heinze, who lives on Rolfe Road near campus and retired from NIU, had her chance to address Baker and Nicklas, she returned to Baker’s original point about the lack of communication regarding the planning.

“I’m very concerned about the communication and clarity going on,” Heinze said, suggesting the university communicate better as it alters the ideas.

“This community is part of the community,” she added.

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